Tuesday 2 February 2016

Learning, Design and Pedagogy: Slickness and Constraints

After years of talking about ‘Learning Design’ (both the ill-fated IMS variety and the ‘softer’ version typified by Laurillard’s equally ill-starred Pedagogic Planner), it’s curious to think how we thought learning and pedagogy were the important and difficult topics, and not for one moment did we think that ‘design’ was more problematic a concept than either of them. The dream of ‘design formulae’ as a kind of recipe for effective learning online hasn’t gone away – “might analytics help?” we now ask… (probably not)

There are perhaps some obvious points to make about the ‘slickness’ of interfaces. The experience of tapping and swiping through apps on an iPad creates the kind of ‘designed experience’ that was drilled into Apple developers by Steve Jobs. This is one kind of ‘design’ – a variety which produced interfaces which present few barriers, which appear ‘natural’ or ‘intuitive’. This natural intuitiveness has become the goal of (some) instructional designers who believe that “the slicker the better” – wheeling out various cognitive speculations to support their claim. The interesting question concerns what can be defensibly said about slickness.

If an artefact is produced to a kind of design which intends that “user” behaviour falls within particular parameters to which the design relates, and that without such a design, user behaviour would be more chaotic, then it is reasonable to say that such a design has had a constraining influence on behaviour. The Highway code is a designed set of constraints to encourage (if not force) drivers into strict parameters of behaviour. When graphic designers talk of ‘eye-catching’ designs, what they mean is that the otherwise wandering gaze is attracted and held by a particular image: that its options for looking at other things are attenuated. Indeed, the different uses of the word “design” – from the design of Apple Macs, to the UML diagrams of an IT system refer to different kinds of constraint. The IT system design attenuates through enforcing rules of behaviour on systems programmers, and eventually, users. The beautifully designed product attenuates not by enforcing rules, but often through paradoxical displays making the seemingly impossible possible. But one way or another, design is the manipulation of constraint.

Learning design then presents a curious problem because learning is not like crossing bridge in the same way as everyone else. With a range of resources at their disposal, learners meander, take unusual turns and explore. As they do so, they encounter constraints in the world – not just the constraints pertaining to a particular domain of study, or the constraints of a particular learning resource, but (most importantly) constraints of other people. Having said this, learners left to wander freely will often become lost or overwhelmed within a world of constraint which they cannot adapt to. Institutions apply constraints in terms of curricula, assessments and deadlines. Teachers apply constraints when they are necessary: “do it like this”, “concentrate of this subject” and so on; they will also sometimes find it necessary to remove constraints from the learner (“do whatever you think is interesting”). Teachers also have to operate within the constraints of the institution. As they apply other constraints in their teaching, they reveal the particular constraints operating on themselves. The constrained learner sees the constrained teacher negotiating barriers some of which they recognise, and perhaps others which they can’t yet fathom. Learners do not learn content: they learn the constraints which operate on the minds of those who present content – even when those minds are hidden behind the mask of a textbook. Good teachers will make themselves objects for inspection and do what they can to reveal their own constraints. If there is a ‘Zone of proximal development’ it lies in the relationship between the constraints of the learner and those of the teacher.

The teacher designs constraints through pedagogic instruction as a way of opening themselves up to learners. This kind of design is not simply a manifestation in the external world – although it may look like that (say a textbook or a video). It is a strategy for laying a path for an imagined learner to come to understand the inner world of the teacher who carries the knowledge they might wish to gain. Such strategies are experiments: attempts to try things out, see what happens, adjust one’s approach.  In a face-to-face setting, constraints are more available for inspection: the sheer number of different signals and senses flowing through time provides a powerful way in which constraints can be discovered. If the learner is one of a crowd in a lecture room, then the learner’s constraints are less visible to the teacher. Even fewer constraints are available for inspection if the interactions are online, although in this case there is a common constraint is technology.

In considering these intersubjective situations of coordinating constraints, designing is not just done by a teacher: learners design too. Their designs take the form of actions in attempting to articulate their understanding as a way of testing the response of teachers. Although this sounds like Pask’s conversation model, it is different in one important way: the gradual acquisition of concepts and the coordination of utterances is not the root of understanding. That lies through the shared articulation of concepts which are the constraints which provide insight into the constraints of a particular teacher or learner.

Teachers, technologists and learners all engage in design. We all formulate half-baked plans, and set out to explore what happens when we enact them. We learn about constraints as we do this. What is typically called ‘design’ in learning design circles is a kind of constraint bearing upon the design processes of the learner. Success is measured in terms of the predictable behaviour of learners with designed resources where the more effective the constraint applied in learning, the more “successful” is deemed the design. There are few ways (particularly with technology) for learners to meander: they cannot incorporate new kinds of tool and are forced to participate by posting text in forums. If they all post text, then the course is deemed successful. Shouldn’t this kind of attenuation be seen as a failure, not a success? 

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